Late last year I spent some time with my grandfather in hospice. They had a cart in each of the rooms filled with items that a family might find helpful- snacks and water, paper, slippers, books on grieving, a fan and an assortment of bibles. There was also a small stereo and a basket of CD’s, all labeled things like ‘rest and relaxation’ or ‘transitions’. I (inconspicuously) perused the selection, becoming more and more horrified at this one size fits all prescription for the last sounds that a person will hear. I picked one up and said aloud ‘Oh my god, these are mixtapes for death!’.
‘Teresa!’ my friend hissed at me, ‘they are not’. But ugh, they were. Someone had curated this well-meaning collection of harpsichords set to ocean waves and easy listening jazz garbage. I suspect it was the activities director, a loud woman who frequently wore necklaces made out of pasta shells.
Music for death is a morbid topic, but this needs to be said. Let me tell you something right now: If I end up with a terminal disease and y’all make me go out listening to a babbling brook and a bunch of elevator music, I’m gonna haunt you in the afterlife.
I don’t know, I guess I realize that some people don’t care about music the way that I do, but the idea of someone meeting the end of their earthly days by listening to something so impersonal is just very upsetting. Music is such an incredibly large part of our worlds, from what we seek out and play on our stereos to the background noise everywhere we go, to the music we make and find and love and use to keep us tethered to our memories. Before children are even born, we strap headphones to bellies and use music to introduce them to our world, that’s how much it matters. It’s some of the first information we give people. So if we do it for the beginning of our lives, why not the end?
In the end, there was no music to usher my grandfather the out of this world. When he finally left, there was just my voice, layered over that babbling brook nonsense, saying over and over ‘you are so loved, you are so loved’. If you ever find yourself in this situation, privileged enough to be beside someone when they leave, please find some music to play them.
Play them some Sigur Ros or Radiohead or some Explosions in the sky- something ethereal that sounds like going home and longing and journeys toward the unknown
Play them some Slayer or Rage against the machine so they can remember all the times they were angry, gloriously alive with rage and passion
Play them The Beatles so they can remember all the times they weren’t angry at all, all the times they were filled with love and compassion and learned what it meant to be human.
Play them some Paul Simon or Rush so they can remember all the adventures they went on, all the places they journeyed to with excitement and wonder.
Play them some Elvis or some Michael Jackson so they can know that one person can really challenge the norm around them and change a musical landscape, and as result, change the world, too.
Play them some Bob Dylan or Eric Clapton so they can remember how hard it is to change, to reinvent yourself, to pick yourself up off the ground and go forward.
Play them some Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings or Patsy Cline so they can remember nights spent beneath stars and bonfires with friends and the woods and saying damn the man.
Play them some Cold Specks, like Holland or The Mark because they are all subtly about death and there is no more haunting voice to guide you into the afterlife.
Play them what they love. Play them the sounds of who they were, even if’s that’s country or techno or black metal or folk rock or even if that’s just the sound of your voice.
And if it’s me, please play me The Wolves by Bon Iver and then The Trapeze Swinger by Iron & Wine, and sing along as I leave this world.
“But please remember me, fondly, I heard from someone you’re still pretty. And then they went on to say that the pearly Gates had some eloquent graffiti. Like ‘We’ll meet again’ and ‘Fuck the man’ And ‘Tell my mother not to worry’. So please remember me, finally, And all my uphill clawing. My dear, but if I make the Pearly Gates, I’ll do my best to make a drawing, na na na, na na na……………….”